by Terry Rogers
On Monday, January 24, City Clerk Terri Hudson introduced an ordinance that would change the process for voter registration in the City of Milford. The new ordinance would allow Milford residents who are registered to vote in state and federal elections to vote in city elections. This would eliminate the need for residents to register separately with the city.
“We have been trying to figure this out for many years,” Hudson said. “We have investigated several options that would provide an easier way for our residents to electronically register to vote in Milford and have explored various programs through private vendors, software companies and many conversations with Sussex County Department of Elections for a very long time. As a matter of fact, many of the employees we initially worked with at the Department of Elections have retired or taken other positions. We worked with a vendor in 2019 who had created an online voter registration. But, because we allow qualified nonresidents to vote, there was a holdup trying to determine the best way to incorporate those voters.”
Over the past few years, COVID has delayed the ability of the city to change the process for voter registration, Hudson explained. The 2020 election had to be cancelled three times and the city had to manually prepare 2,400 absentee ballots. She stated that her office was focused on making the change once that election cycle was over, but that the pandemic continued, and new problems were created. In addition, her office was busy with the Police Borrowing Referendum, a vote that was also postponed, and a councilmember resigned over the winter requiring a special election.
“Just prior to the end of this year, I spoke to City Engineer James Puddicombe about the voter registration process,” Hudson said. “He seemed very encouraged that with the help of his GIS Analyst, what we had anticipated as a burdensome project was simpler and more doable. With his fresh perspective and the assistance available through the Sussex County Department of Elections under Director Bo McDowell, the time was right to move forward.”
Hudson stated that the way the system exists currently, the city can print and distribute voter lists that are separated into four wards at any time. When a new voter registers, they would add them and issue the updated list. With the state registration, Hudson’s office would receive a list of all registered voters in the 19963 Zip code which will then require her staff to separate residents and eligible voters from non-residents and non-eligible voters. Once that is completed, the list would be divided into the four wards.
“Though that sounds simple, we have streets in Milford that depending on what side or end of the street someone lives on could put them in two, sometimes three, different wards,” Hudson said. “But I am much more confident with the input I will receive from the City Engineer. We also still need to register qualified non-residents which means we will still need to register voters at City Hall.” Hudson explained that a previous City Manager and Mayor had hoped to gradually do away with nonresident voting, but state law prohibited removing any voting and candidate rights of nonresidents.
The new voting process has advantages as residents will no longer be required to register separately at City Hall although, since 2020, Hudson stated that phone registration was permitted and there had been no complaints since that process was added. She also explained that the separate registration process was not a problem until Customer Service staff were separated from City Hall staff as when new residents came to sign up for utilities, they were provided voter registration information. When the two departments were separated, voter registration with the city became more inconvenient.
“Our City Engineer and our GIS Analyst will be our go-to staff for these services,” Hudson said. “They will use mapping and data systems to differentiate wards based on locations and addresses. We will continue to use property records and utility records as well. I don’t want to say it should become easier after the first year, but the Department of Elections has offered to add ward numbers to their list of voters once we provide them with that information. There will be no change to the process for qualified nonresident property owners. My office will continue to oversee those rolls”
Several council members expressed their support of the new process for voter registration.
“I am very happy to see that the voter registration process is now combined with the state making it much easier for the residents of Milford to vote in the municipal election,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “I’m quite surprised that it has taken this long to make this change. It should make it easier and therefore, allow for much more voter participation. I hope in the future we can work with the state and have our elections coincide with the county, state and national elections as well.”
Councilman Jason James, who has been outspoken about his desire to change the voter registration process, agreed with Councilman Culotta.
“Removal of the dual registration requirement is a subject that I spoke on early in my tenure as a councilperson,” Councilman James said. “Removing the burden of dual registration requirement to vote in the City of Milford elections will benefit thousands of Milford citizens. I have personally listened to numerous counts of a person showing up to the poles prepared to vote only to learn that although they are a registered voter for state elections, they cannot vote in the local election. The city can rely on the state roster to verify a would-be voter is properly registered and their residency can be verified through proper validation of identification. The potential impact on participation in the electing of local officials could be huge. Removal of the dual registration requirement will allow the voice of many more of our citizens to be heard. This has no downside.”
Councilman Mike Boyle believes that council will pass the new ordinance easily when it is presented at the February 14 meeting.
“The Milford City Council will, I am certain, pass Ordinance 2022-10 to eliminate an outdated requirement that qualified residents register separately with eh city in order to vote in municipal elections and will instead utilize the Delaware Department of Elections registration system,” Councilman Boyle said. “This could be the most impactful decision City Council will take in 2022. I am excited by this change that automatically enfranchises all eligible Milford residents, registered to vote in statewide elections, by removing a bothersome obstacle to voter participation in city elections. By participation of an expanded voter base, the city’s elected officials will e more accountable to and reflective of the wishes of Milford voters.”
Councilman Boyle continued that in talking with many new Milford residents, an overwhelming number of them were not aware that the city required them to register separately at City Hall.
“In my adult life, I have lived in five different states and had never before encountered the need to register to vote in local municipal elections until I moved to Delaware,” Councilman Boyle said. “Milford’s switch to utilize the state voter registration list is historic and a very long time coming. I commend City Clerk Terri Hudson for her untiring efforts to bring about a technical system to enable Milford to adopt the Delaware Voter Registration System and eliminate the need for dual registration systems.”
The ordinance will be presented and discussed on Monday, February 14 with public comment permitted. Councilman Boyle urged all Milford residents to join the virtual council meeting to express their concerns or support for the change. Hudson stated that if the ordinance passes on February 14, it will become effective February 28 and will be in place well before the next annual election which will take place in April.
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